Baggage claim

Passengers waiting to check in for flights mingle with those looking for luggage after landing at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport in this file photo from April. A recent terminal upgrade is giving passengers a new baggage claim area, a project funded in part by the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission. Commission members are pushing local communities to support aviation as an economic development issue.

Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport and other airports across Oklahoma account for $10.6 billion in economic activity in the state.

Grayson Ardies, state director of aeronautics with the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, made the point for members of the Lawton Fort Sill Chamber of Commerce last week as part of an effort to highlight just how important aviation/aerospace is to the state’s economy. Aviation/aerospace is second only to oil and gas — the state’s largest industry — as a driving force for Oklahoma, contributing a total of $44 billion annually.

Ardies said that in Lawton, more than $55 million in economic activity and more than 500 direct or indirect jobs can be tied to Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport.

“That airport really is a mover and shaker in your community,” he said, adding that is the primary reason Lawton should continue investing and supporting its airport.

Ardies said Lawton’s airport has a major asset as it continues to be part of the aeronautics community’s effort to expand its footprint. Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport has an 8,599 foot long, 150 foot wide concrete runway that can accommodate “pretty much any aircraft in the fleet,” he said. Airport Director Barbara McNally concurred, saying the airport recently accommodated three 777s and also hosts C-17s as part of its work with the military.

“Our airport is here to support whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The Lawton airport is one of Oklahoma’s four commercial airports, and those four matched with 104 general aviation airports account for the $10.6 billion in economic activity. Ardies said aviation supports more than 206,000 jobs in Oklahoma, with about 120,000 directly employed in aerospace and defense.

This economic engine — which isn’t prone to the boom and bust cycles of oil and gas —is the reason the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission supports aviation and aerospace, and is urging local communities to do the same. Ardies said the commission has four main missions: airports, ensuring a viable system of public airports (the reason the commission helped fund Phase I of the Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport terminal expansion); aerospace; workforce; and aeronautics safety standards.

Airports are a crucial component of economic development, Ardies said.

“Give me a mile of runway and I can get you anywhere in the world,” he said.

There’s a variety of airports to be found in the southwest quadrant of the state, he said. In addition to Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, Henry Post Field at Fort Sill and Altus Air Force base, there are airfields in Duncan, Anadarko, Walters, Chattanooga, Altus, Tipton and Carnegie. In total, Oklahoma has 5,716 general aviation aircraft actively flying and almost 9,600 pilots.

Traditional aviation is only part of the picture. Aerospace is increasingly important, with links to military and commercial entities.

“There has been no better time to be involved in aerospace,” Ardies said, adding that effort is helped by the fact Oklahoma’s governor is a pilot who can fly a variety of aircraft, while Sen. Jim Inhofe, with decades of flying experience, frequently identifies himself as “a pilot first.”

Oklahoma also has a number of state legislators who are pilots or who strongly support aerospace and aviation, evident in recent years by cooperating with the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission’s work to protect military airspace from tall structures. Ardies said the three-year effort ended in 2019 with legislation that allows wind energy facilities and military installations to live together and flourish.

Those activities need support, the reason Ardies is asking local communities to support aviation through efforts such as training and providing a workforce that supports aviation and aerospace.

“Workforce is the life blood of any industry, but especially us. We need your help to encourage young people to make aviation a career choice,” he said, adding the commission is aiding that effort with a program that encourages schools to teach aviation-related curriculum and providing funds for those efforts. “The commission needs career aviation evangelists.”

Lawton is well-positioned to gain from aviation, Ardies said, pointing to a runway that can support all kinds of aircraft and nearby land available for development.

“Airports mean business,” he said.